Recently I happened upon, what seemed to me, a very interesting review of Aquaman. To be clear, it’s a very poor review; the authoress says little about the objective merits or demerits of the film (of which a lot could be said on both counts), and instead spends almost the entire thing ranting about how much she didn’t like the film’s politics, or lack thereof. I say the review is interesting because I think it illustrates an elementary principle of philosophy (and life in general) that progressive thought always seems to miss.
First it must be noted that Aquaman is a very successful film. As of this writing, it’s made 265 million dollars in the US and close to a billion worldwide (according to boxofficemojo.com)—and it’s still going, sitting comfortably at number one in the US Box Office, while standing at a respectable 7.5 rating on IMDb. Objectively speaking, it’s not a great film by any means, but clearly people like it. Heck, I liked it, even with all its many flaws.
Now here comes the point: if it had been everything this reviewer apparently wanted it to be—a social justice driven, feminist-environmentalist tale where instructions on real-world politics and ideology served as the main themes—does anyone honestly suppose that it would have been half as successful as it is?
There are no hard and fast rules in the box office, but there are in philosophy, and one of them is this: if you change the cause, you change the effect. Aquaman is a very successful film because audiences enjoyed it, and one of the reasons they enjoyed it seems to be that it was so unabashedly escapist in its tone. If the filmmakers had changed that and instead opted for a self-consciously ‘relevant’ film like, say A Wrinkle in Time or Ghostbusters 2016 or Robin Hood, it almost certainly would have bombed just like they did.
The Consequence of Artificially Imposing a Narrative on Movies
Now, this is the main point: the idea is that films like Aquaman conform to a “narrative” that progressive thought considers harmful, and that popular fiction ought instead to try to push a more progressive narrative. This is the reason behind things such as people advocating for a black man to be cast as James Bond or Superman, or calling for be homosexual couples in the next Star Wars film, or Captain Marvel being pushed as the “new face of the MCU” before the movie is even released. The idea is that one narrative currently “gets” the popular films and the popular characters, and that a different, progressive narrative ought to be put into those films, because that will help to achieve “progress.”
The unspoken assumption is that the popularity and consequently the cultural impact will be unchanged, but merely transferred from one ‘narrative’ to the other. Much like how socialist countries assume that their level of prosperity will remain the same when wealth is forcibly ‘redistributed.’ But the economic laws and regulations of a country are part of what makes it poor or prosperous. If you change them, you affect how much wealth will be produced. Likewise, a film’s content, story, and themes are part of what makes it connect to its audience; change them, and you change how people react to the film.
If I were to hazard a guess as to why Aquaman is so successful, it would be that the film features many elements that people generally like in a story of this kind: a tough, masculine hero; an attractive, sharp-tongued heroine; vile yet human villains; superhuman feats of martial skill and daring; exotic and beautiful locations and imagery; fearsome beasts and monsters (e.g., sharks with lasers); ancient prophecies come true and old wrongs put right; forbidden love; kings, princesses, and gods; fathers, mothers, and sons. In other words, things that are simple, straightforward, and universal.
Using Movies For Political Motives Inevitably Ruins Them
What I think people like this reviewer would say is that audiences ought to learn to appreciate having ‘important’ things like social-justice, feminism, environmentalism, and so on in their films, because if they did, it would help the world to be a better place. They would likely say that entertainment is, of course, political, just like everything else, and that politics is the path to create a just society.
Be that as it may, this would essentially amount to saying “this ought to have a different result than it does!” Whether it’s Chamberlain insisting that appeasement ought to prevent a war or Marx insisting that communal property ought to result in peace and plenty, this attitude has never done anyone any good. Again, the cause determines the effect, which in turn means that if you desire a given end, you are limited in your choice of means.
You cannot, in fact, have it both ways; you cannot dictate both the means and the end. Either a chosen means will, in fact, lead to the end you claim to desire or they will not. If not, then you either must choose a different means or admit that you are not actually trying to achieve that end.
As a corollary, this is also why we should never trust what someone says their ends are until we have discovered by what means they intend to get there. It is the easiest thing in the world to claim a noble-sounding motive, such as ‘equality’ or ‘social-justice.’ But the means used or proposed are what they are, as are their actual results; they can be observed and judged objectively.
For example, if you want to make a popular film that is seen and remembered by many people, tedious social commentary and moralizing does not seem an effective means to get there. And if you want to make a film that has a real positive impact upon the world, making one no one wants to see is equally unlikely to serve your purpose. But if you want to condition the general populace to value progressive ideology over storytelling, well, then you really have no business doing anything related to entertainment.
Photo: Warner Bros.